If you have special dietary needs, the nutrition information on food labels can help you to:
• Improve your health
• Manage your weight, diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease
• Reduce your risk for other chronic diseases
• Avoid products that cause food sensitivities
• Follow therapeutic diet from a physician, nutritionist or registered dietitian
Nutrition information about a food can be found under the "Nutrition Facts’ panel, which is usually on the side or back of the package. The top section of this label contains product-specific information. This includes serving size, calories, and nutrient information, which varies with each food product.
Serving Size: This uniform measurement is the amount of a particular food or beverage that is considered one serving. Serving sizes are generally consistent for similar types of foods, with the exception of cereal and a few others.
Because serving size is uniform, you can easily compare the nutrients and calories (food energy) available in similar foods. Uniformity in size means that the serving size must be about the same for the same types of products, such as different brands of frozen yogurt. In addition, the serving size must be uniform for similar products within a food category. An example is ice cream, ice milk, and sherbet within the category of frozen dairy-type desserts.
Serving size reflects the amounts that most people actually eat rather than the portion YOU usually eat or the recommended amount. Pay close attention to this information and compare this to how much YOU actually eat. There may be several servings in the container.
The serving size is expressed in familiar kitchen measures (e.g. cup, tablespoon, teaspoon, piece, slice) as well as metric amounts such as grams (g) and milliliters (mL). Ounces (oz.) may be used only if a common household unit does not apply, and an appropriate visual unit must be given (e.g. 1 oz. (28g/about ½ pickle). Other serving size units include cookies, rolls, sliced products, etc.
Servings Per Container: This is the total number of servings in the product. Remember that the nutrient information is based on a serving size, or the amount in one serving, not necessarily on all the food in the package.
Serving size identified on the package determines all the nutrient amounts listed on the label. Note that serving size on the "Nutrition Facts" label may be different from the serving size recommended in MyPyramid, the USDA’s food guide pyramid.
Calories: This is a measure of how much energy is in a serving of food. On the food label, calories are listed below serving size and servings per container.
You can manage your weight by knowing how many calories per serving are available in a product, then increasing or decreasing the total number of calories you consume. Eating too many total calories per day is linked to obesity and overweight. It doesn’t matter whether the calories are from fat, protein, or carbohydrate.
Calories from Fat: The "Nutrition Facts" label also lists how many of the calories in one serving of a product come from fat. Remember that eating two servings of a food means that you consume twice as many calories from fat.
Do not confuse calories from fat with the dietary advice that applies to your overall food choices. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that fat be only 20 to 35% of total calories, which depends on your age. This is 65 grams for the 2,000-calorie intake level used in the Daily Value.
Sodium: You should consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, which is approximately one teaspoon of salt. People with chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and kidney disease should consume less. The minimum sodium required is 250-500 mg per day.
Foods high in sodium do not always taste salty. Look for these salt or sodium-containing compounds on the list of ingredients: Na (symbol for sodium); monosodium glutamate (MSG); baking soda; baking powder; disodium phosphate; sodium alginate; sodium nitrate.
Potassium: On the top part of the "Nutrition Facts" label, potassium may be listed voluntarily just below sodium. Its % Daily Value is based on a recommended intake of 3,500 mg a day. Consuming too much potassium can be harmful to people with kidney problems, because they are unable to get rid of the excess.
Total Carbohydrate: Nutrition experts recommend that 45-65% of your total daily calories come from carbohydrates. This part of the label lists the values for all carbohydrates, including dietary fiber and sugars. It is voluntary to list the number of grams of sugar alcohols (polyols) per serving.
Dietary Fiber helps fight some diseases and promotes bowel regularity. Recommended intake is 14 grams per 1,000 calories consumed. Dialysis patients should eat 20 to 25 grams (G) daily to prevent constipation.
Sugars include both naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, so check the ingredients list to identify the types of sugar in the product. The label can claim "no sugar added," yet a beverage or food can contain naturally occurring sugar, like fructose in fruits or lactose in milk. Sugar in vegetables, cereals, grains, and legumes also may be present.
A few names for added sugars include: table sugar (sucrose), corn syrup, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey maltose, dextrose and other caloric sweeteners.
Protein: This is a nutrient that most Americans get more of than they need. Protein is restricted in the diets of people with certain medical conditions, such as kidney and liver disorders.
Other Vitamins and Minerals: Along with the required listing of vitamins A and C, iron and calcium on the "Nutrition Facts" label, other vitamins and minerals may be included voluntarily. Amounts are only presented as percentages of the Daily Value.